LONDON (TrustLaw) – Coumba, a Senegalese girl, and her younger sister Debo are travelling back to their village for the school holidays.
They are the first in their family to attend school and the act of going to class and passing exams gives them a sense of great excitement – education, for them, is not a sacred right.
Their father, mother and older brother all live and work in Sinthiou Mbadane, Senegal, a cluster of straw huts with baobab trees scattered all around.
It’s located just a few miles from the city of Mbour but it’s an entirely different world – a small, traditional community of cattle herders who still cook meals on open fires and fetch water from wells.
As they walk back home, the two sisters have no idea their brother has been badly injured and will no longer be able to tend to the family cattle. They also can’t imagine that their father will marry one of them off to pay for the medical expenses.
‘Tall as the Baobab Tree’ is a film about their moving story but also about the power of education and its life-changing consequences.
Director Jeremy Teicher says the film “was a great way to discuss generally the cultural change that’s happening when you bring education to very traditional villages for the first time.”
The 24-year-old New York City-based filmmaker came up with the idea for the film while working on an earlier project for which he visited Senegal and met a group of young people nearly the same age as him who were the first from their community to be sent to school.
“We became friends and we started sharing our stories,” Teicher told TrustLaw in London. “There was a group of girls who were very passionate about discussing early marriage and to me it was ... I had no idea it was going on.”
He proposed making a fiction film about it and they were eager to help with the project.
“We wanted to tell a story that also takes a bigger look at how the culture is changing,” he said.
READY TO FIGHT FOR EDUCATION
The film draws inspiration from the real lives of the young people while introducing fictional elements. The characters are all non-professional actors, many of them from the same village that is at the heart of the story.
Dialogues were largely improvised, which at times gives the film the feeling of a documentary. Coumba and Debo are fictional names but the two girls are sisters in real life.
In the film, they are respectful girls, devoted to their family but going to school has opened their eyes to new hopes and possibilities.
Education is something they are ready to fight for.
So when their older brother falls down a baobab tree while tending to the family’s cattle and their father – a devout Muslim – decides to marry off Debo to pay for medical treatment, Coumba decides to look for a job that would give her enough money to pay for her brother’s injured leg and save her sister from early marriage.
“I’m ready to kill myself,” Debo says when she learns she’ll soon be married off to a much older man.
But the sisters don't succumb to desperation. Coumba starts working as a maid in a hotel, lying to her father who thinks she is spending her holiday looking after the cows.
Both sisters silently fight against their parents’ choice, never openly challenging their authority but cautiously defying it.
Tradition and religion are sacred in the small Senegalese village. In West African culture, men are generally the guardians of both.
Men are not portrayed in the movie as “evil” or bad. Debo’s father loves her but sees marrying her off as the only way to get his eldest son back in health and back to work. It’s a matter of survival for the whole family.
“You have to realise that everyone is doing what they think is best for their families, Teicher said.
SOME ELDERS EMBRACE EDUCATION
He said he didn’t encounter much resistance from the village elders and one of them even acted in the film.
“There are some elders who recognise the importance of education and embrace it as the path of the future while still living within this traditional patriarchal world,” he added.
In the film, the young men – like the sisters’ brother and Coumba’s friend Amady – share the girls’ view on early marriage.
“What you’ve said, it hurts me,” says Amady when she tells him that her sister will have to get married. Amady has been helping Coumba by watching the cattle while she works at the hotel.
The film ends with Debo leaving the village on a cart with her soon-to-be husband, after the village elder urged her father to keep his promise and marry her off, even though Coumba had racked up enough money to call off the wedding.
It’s a fictional ending, chosen to draw attention to the issue of early marriage and, ultimately, to campaign against it.
Teicher said that by making this movie he witnessed a unique moment in time – when education enters lives and starts a slow but inevitable revolution.
More and more village children now attend school, he said, with parents sending as many children as they can afford. Many of the film’s protagonists have graduated high school and now live in different cities across Senegal.
'Tall as the baobab tree' was screened at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London last month and was selected for screening by a number of major international festivals such as the BFI London Film Festival, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and the International Film Festival Rotterdam.